Study: Political reporters are stenographers at debates

From the “Could’ve Knocked Me Over With a Two-Ton Feather” Department:

A new study analyzing reporting of political debates finds that political journalists are more stenographers than journalists, depending on how you view the word “objectivity.”

Poynter reports on the research (which is behind a paywall), which looked at the tweets of 430 political reporters during the presidential debates in 2012.

They found that 60 percent of the journalist tweets “reflected traditional practices of ‘professional’ objectivity: stenography—simply passing along a claim made by a politician—and ‘he said, she said’ repetition of a politician’s claims and his opponent’s counterclaim.”

Journalists largely repeated the claims and statement of candidates, rather that check or challenge them.

That’s a paragraph that more than tells a story, but perhaps slightly different than the one the researchers have in mind, for it reinforces the notion that in order to be a professional objective journalist, one needs to simply repeat the utterings of a politician without fact-checking.

The researchers found relatively little fact-checking and the less likely one was to identify themselves as a “reporter,” the more likely the person tweeted a fact-check.

The data showed that checking was done more frequently by those in the data set who identified themselves as commentators rather than reporters. This again suggests that traditional notions of objectivity may be a factor.

Coddington, the lead author and a doctoral student at the University of Texas-Austin, said he and his co-authors believe journalists are missing an opportunity by not challenging and checking claims.

“Debates are a prime opportunity to challenge and confirm factual claims in real-time on Twitter to a public that’s paying real attention — a perfect spot to cut through the rhetoric of the campaign and play the informational role that journalists are capable of doing so well,” Coddington said. “Journalists aren’t, by and large, doing that, and they should, especially in a situation where audiences may be looking for someone to help them sort through the claims that are coming at them at a bewildering pace.”

Twitter, of course, isn’t the end product of a journalist’s work, but the research does appear to show the extent to which journalists, particularly on Twitter, can be afraid of being painted as “biased,” merely for doing what a journalist is actually supposed to do.